Council Member Ben Kallos (D-Yorkville, Lenox Hill) is a man with a mission. The mission? Release the stranglehold that real estate lobbyists have on New York City.
Last week, Kallos announced that he is officially throwing his hat into the ring for the 2021 Manhattan Borough President race. He intends to succeed his close friend Borough President Gale Brewer (D), who is nearing the end of her term limit. He will be running as a “reform democrat”, intent on fighting against the influence of the real estate industry and promoting affordable housing. In this regard, his pedigree speaks for itself. As a Council member, Kallos has successfully fought to stop the proliferation of supertall buildings in East Midtown, and spearheaded an initiative to close the mechanical voids loophole. In 2017, the publication City and State New York ranked him as one of the top 5 best City Council members.
Since he announced his run, Kallos has already accumulated multiple endorsements. At the time of the announcement, Kallos unveiled seven endorsements from sevenorganized labor unions, including Communications Workers of America Local 1101, Heat and Frost Insulators Local 12. A week later, his office announced that it had received six additional endorsements from the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUoE).
I got the opportunity to ask Ben Kallos a few questions yesterday afternoon. Here were his answers:
NYCP: Describe your upbringing and education. What inspired you to pursue a career in law, and subsequently politics?
BK: My work in public service as an elected official was actually a calling that came to me when I was about twelve. We were studying the “Mishna” – a recording of the Sanhedrin, a committee of seventy rabbis who would read track tapes from the five books of Moses, debate what they meant, and come forward with clarifications around the laws.
The example I tend to use is… there’s a passage that says, “Thou shalt not bathe a calf in its mother’s milk.” For me, that’s pretty straightforward; don’t fill up a bathtub with milk and put a calf in it. That’s not a good use of milk. But the rabbis interpreted that to say you shouldn’t mix meat and dairy. One rabbi said that you can still have chicken and milk, since chickens don’t lactate. Another rabbi said no; anything that’s meat, you shouldn’t mix with dairy, but we’re not going to count fish as meat for our purposes.
That was tremendously inspiring to me, so I turned to my rabbi and said, “I want to do this for a living.” And he said, “Well, we are waiting for the Messiah before we reopen [the Sanhedrin].” So I said, “Great. I’ll become a rabbi, I’ll convene several other rabbis, and we’ll start making rules.” And he said, “Well, we don’t have ‘blasphemy’ in Judaism, but if we did, that would be it.” So he said I should be a lawyer instead. And that’s how I got into law.
But I’ve always felt drawn to public service and being an elected official, because I’ve always wanted to do things that no one else in their right mind would ever do. Like refusing money from real estate, and having a monthly first Friday.
NYCP: When you first started running for City Council, were you ever concerned that refusing money from the real estate lobbyists would put you at a disadvantage?
BK: It always has. But it’s also created a tremendous freedom that makes it worth it. To clarify, we’ve refused real estate dollars, but there’s a handful that slipped in that we missed. We took money from real estate agents at one point; we don’t take money from them anymore. But we’ve really tried to stay away from the very big dollars from real estate developers.
For me, yes, it was a disadvantage. There was one night when I had a fundraiser and somebody from a very large real estate development firm showed up with a huge stack of checks. They said, “Well, we didn’t support you to begin with, but now that you have a competitive general election, we’re here to support you now. Here’s a bundle of checks.”
I turned to the person and said, “Thank you, but no thank you. You’re always welcome, but your money is no good here.” And the person was a little offended, but said, “Don’t worry. The money will be waiting for you when you change your mind.”
That’s the reality of politics, but for me, it was liberating. I was willing to do a lot more work to raise money from those who don’t have it. I wouldn’t have to take money from those who would give it willingly, but want things in return. People have told me, “Some people can give money without asking for anything in return,” but from my experience, that isn’t true. Whether somebody gives me $10 or $1,500, everyone asks for something in return.
NYCP: Turning down the money from that real estate agent… it was noble, but I also think it was very prudent. I think most candidates would see that as free money. But there’s no such thing as free money in the context of politics, is there?
BK: That is very kind, and I think one of the places where I have been careful… when I take money, I try to make sure that it comes from people that I am aligned with. For instance, I’ve received big contributions from 32BJ, which represents building service workers. And I live in a building with 32BJ building service workers. Every holiday time, we give them a tip.
I’ve never heard anyone in my district say, ‘We should pay our building service workers less’, or, ‘We should pay our teachers less’. When it comes to real estate, the interests of the community and real estate developers are often against each other. Whereas when it comes to labor unions, they’re actually aligned.
NYCP: From what I can glean, your mission as Borough President would be to release the stranglehold that the real estate industry has on the City. Was that the same goal that you had in mind when you started running for City Council?
BK: Well, to start, even before Trump got elected on a wave of anti-government sentiment, I’ve always felt that government was broken. When I got back from law school at SUNY Buffalo, I wanted to get involved in government. So I called my local elected officials and I told them I wanted to meet them, and they said no. But I was persistent, and they said that if I wanted to meet them, I should pay to go to a fundraiser. They asked me for $175, which was more than I had at the time, but I paid anyway.
I went to the fundraiser bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited to meet my elected official. But I got little more than a handshake, and they blew me off. That was not a good experience for me. I felt that my elected officials were largely “absent”. They often said one thing and did another.
But listen, elected officials aren’t always going to do what I want. Even my colleagues don’t always do what I want, and I don’t always do what my constituents want. But I always found it questionable when an elected official chose to do what a real estate developer wanted at the same time that the developer was giving them thousands of dollars.
So I wanted to do things very differently. I wanted to have an open office. On the first Friday of every month, I invite everyone to come to my district office to meet me face-to-face. Regardless of who you are, what you do and how much money you make, you can come. And that is literally my secret sauce. Of all the things I’ve done, it is the one thing no other politician has been willing to replicate.
NYCP: When asked about your intentions to run for Borough President, you recently remarked that “the stakes have never been higher”. What exactly did you mean by that? What makes the stakes today higher than they were two or three years ago?
BK: The pendulum of power is swinging. It’s been swinging away from real estate developers, towards small dollars and the community. Gale Brewer has decidedly been on the side of the community, oftentimes standing up to local Council members. But when the Council Members and the Borough President are aligned, we can accomplish a lot. We literally rezoned to stop super-scrapers in a way that has never been done before. We’ve become a model for other parts of the city. We’ve rezoned to stop supertalls with empty voids in them in multiple parts of the City.
The part that compels me to run for Borough President is the fact that Gale can’t stay in that office forever. Somebody needs to step up and keep standing up to the real estate developers and the mayor. And now that we just passed Question 4 on the ballot, the next Borough President will be able to stand up to anyone and everyone without fear of retribution. Nobody will be able to cut their budget. And that’s the kind of Borough President I want to be.